Henry III’s Rediscovered Westminster Abbey Sacristy Opens to Tourists
The long-lost Great Sacristy of Henry III, built nearly eight centuries ago and rediscovered in 2020, will be open to the public for the first time this summer. The 13th century king ordered this sacred building be constructed for use by Benedictine monks, who would be assigned to his then under-construction Westminster Abbey church in London.
Visitors who come to Westminster Abbey between July and September can sign up to take a Hidden Highlights Tour, which is being offered as part of the abbey’s 2021 summer festival. The tour will reveal the newly restored and excavated remains of the ancient abbey, along with many other sites and attractions that are normally off-limits to the public. The long-lost sacristy “will open to the public for the first time this week,” announced an article in the Evening Standard.
Painting by Pietro Fabris, which shows the long-lost Westminster Abbey Sacristy at its center. (Westminster Abbey)
Finding the Long-Lost Westminster Abbey Sacristy
Last year, a team of archaeologists from the company Pre-Construct Archaeology were hired to perform excavations in the area where Henry III’s long-destroyed sacristy was known to have stood. This was necessary because administrators at Westminster Abbey are planning to construct a new ticketing building on the site, and this project could not move forward until a full archaeological survey has been completed.
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In 1869, the famed architect Sir George Gilbert Scott found some of the remains of the sacristy while under employ as the abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric (an architectural maintenance position). The current team was hired to dig down further to see what could be discovered. The archaeologists finally unearthed the foundation of the sacristy in September 2020.
Some interesting artifacts from different centuries have been removed from this historically significant location, upon which the sacristy building stood from the 1250s until 1740, when it was finally abandoned and torn down. After a few months of site exploration and preparation, abbey officials are now ready to give the public a glimpse of everything they have uncovered.
“The abbey’s sacristy has lain largely hidden from sight for centuries,” said Scott Craddock, head of visitor experience at the Westminster site in the Evening Standard. “This tour will enable our visitors to get a unique glimpse of London’s medieval history.”
The foundations of the Westminster Abbey Sacristy as seen from above. (Pre-Construct Archaeology)
Two Westminster Abbeys and One Westminster Abbey Sacristy
The Westminster Abbey known today is not the first building to carry that name nor sit on the church’s current site. The original Westminster Abbey was commissioned by Edward the Confessor. He was one of the last of England’s Anglo-Saxon kings, who occupied the throne from 1042 until his death in 1066.
Edward’s church was designed to be used for royal burials and associated ceremonies. Edward’s remains were buried on the original church’s grounds shortly after initial construction was complete, which made him the first of many to be buried that location. Thousands of bodies were likely interred at Westminster Abbey over the next few centuries, mostly Benedictine monks who served at the local monastery affiliated with Westminster Abbey.
The current Westminster Abbey was constructed by Henry III, as a replacement for the old abbey. Although he was a Norman king, Henry held Edward the Confessor in high regard. He saw his grand and ambitious building project as a way to honor Edward’s memory. Construction on the new church began in 1245.
As a part of the site’s expansion, Henry issued orders that a sacristy be built as well. It was to be occupied by Benedictine monks who would be responsible for conducting church services and performing other important church-related duties. The monks used the resulting Westminster Abbey Sacristy as a changing room, and also as a storage room for the various items used in the Catholic Mass.
Left: A stoup discovered in the 13th century foundations was “probably used by monks in Edward the Confessor’s church to wash their hands as they entered.” Top right: Skeleton of a monk discovered during the Westminster Abbey Sacristy excavations. Bottom right: Fragment of wall plaster with floral design believed to date from the Tudor period. (Pre-Construct Archaeology / Westminster Abbey)
History of the Westminster Abbey Sacristy
The sacristy was completed sometime in the 1250s. It was built on top of the site’s burial grounds, and when the team from Pre-Construct Archaeology excavated the site they unearthed a significant collection of skeletal remains. The Benedictine order was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 16th century. As a part of the country’s abrupt spiritual conversion, many abbeys were destroyed around that time.
But Henry VIII had no intention of letting Westminster Abbey be destroyed. To save the historic and magnificent structure, Henry VIII changed its status from abbey to cathedral. This guaranteed it would remain a major house of worship used by future kings and queens, under the authority of Henry’s Church of England.
As for the sacristy, it was also spared. But it was repurposed as a living space. It is a testament to how well built the sacristy was that it continued to be used as a house for another two centuries, or for five centuries after it was originally constructed. The building was finally demolished in 1740, leaving nothing but a solid stone foundation that would be uncovered 280 years later by archaeologists searching through the sacristy’s long-neglected ruins.
Westminster Abbey Reveals its Hidden Treasures
A visit to the remains of the Great Sacristy is only one treat that lies in store for families and individuals who sign up for a Hidden Highlights Tour. They will also get to see the Jerusalem Chamber, where Henry IV took his final breath in 1413. They’ll walk through the library, which was once part of the monks’ dormitory and features beautiful bookcases built by skilled craftsmen in the 15th and 17th centuries. Visitors will finish the tour by exploring the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which have been closed for more than a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
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The abbey is also offering open-air cinema and theatre events, and concerts galore as part of its ongoing Summer Festival. “We’ve lined up our best ever season of things to see and do at the Abbey,” Craddock declared on the Westminster Abbey website. “We hope we’ve got something for everyone to enjoy, whether you’re into history, music, film or theatre, or looking for a family day out.”
Top image: The archaeological dig site of the Westminster Abbey Sacristy will be part of the abbey’s Hidden Highlights tours this summer at Westminster Abbey, photographed above. Source: coward_lion / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde